Paradise in the city
Clare L. Hickman
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ferndale
May 19, 2019—Easter 5C
Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35
In the beginning, paradise was a garden, and we dwelt there together, eating of all the fruits of the trees. And we walked through it in the warmth of the afternoon and the cool of the evening. We lay by the river that gave life to the lands all about. And we were with God.
Then we ate of the tree of knowledge and good and evil, and we were sent out of the garden, and our world became the land. We worked the land, and it was hard, but we were strong. But then, just as we had betrayed the garden, we betrayed the land: blood soaking into it as Cain slew Abel, brother taking up arms against brother. We were condemned to the city.
So it all began, with a foundation story which equated alienation from God with alienation from the garden and then the land. Human history then spools forth from this mythic past.
But here, at the other end of our Bible, we hear the Christian vision of the mythic future. In the Revelation to John the Divine, a beleaguered community finds hope in God’s promise to right all wrongs, to overthrow all oppressors, and to return God’s people to paradise. Only this time, paradise lies in the City! Paradise is the New Jerusalem, descending to earth to be God’s eternal dwelling place.
But it’s not just any city. The river of the water of life flows right through the center of this city, and on its banks grows the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, no matter what the time or season. This is a place in which the city and the garden live in harmony, for the life, the health, the future of us all!
This echoes the vision in Psalm 148, in which the whole creation praises God: mountains and valleys, sea monsters and snowstorms, fruit trees and cattle and birds, people of all ages and stations. God has given a law to it all (ALL of that) that shall not pass away, the psalm tells us … and some of creation has done pretty well with that (props to you, mountains and fruit trees and sea monsters!). Humanity hasn’t always done so well, but that doesn’t mean the law went away. The law continues, and we give praise to God when we obey that law and live in God’s ways. By doing this, we join our voices to all of creation. In this, we live into the final image of paradise: a city in harmony with the garden. Humans singing alongside lands and seas, birds and beasts.
This is the redemption we see in Revelation. It’s not just about people. It’s about all of Creation, living in harmony with God and each other, according to the dream of God that brought this whole mess into being in the first place. It WILL happen. God will bring it about. He will. It is God’s will.
But in the meantime… how do we live into a “now” that more closely reflects that “not yet”? How do we pick up our part in a song of praise that is written to be sung not just by humanity, but also by earth and waters, by all living creatures, and even by the plants?
And this is where things get a little delicate. Because this is a conversation that might well elicit a variety of responses, depending on one’s political perspectives and priorities. But what isn’t actually political is the assertion that how we interact with and treat the creation matters. That it’s a spiritual matter. That it’s about sin and repentance. That it’s about stewardship and responsibility. That it’s about sinking deep into the truth of createdness and belovedness and “It is good”-ness. Spiritually (not politically, not economically) it’s about incarnation: it’s about the spiritual reality that God is made manifest in the physical realm, and is glorified (is made present) in the physical realm. Not just in humanity, but in all of creation.
Which means we don’t get to duck the question of whether we are acting in such a way as to sing in harmony with mountains, streams, birds, insects and trees. We don’t get to duck the question of how we might do better, or differently. We don’t get to duck it, just because we think it’s a “political” move by those in a different party. And we don’t get to duck it, just because we can conveniently blame our inaction on that other party.
For instance, I would totally support a gas tax to encourage people to drive less. But since that’s a political non-starter, I can keep my moral high-ground and ALSO drive a 50 minute commute without unbearable gasoline costs. I doubt I am alone in this. And those who oppose government interventions to limit carbon emissions can rest happy in their belief that they’re saving the economy, while ignoring the sometimes huge economic costs that come from changing and extreme weather patterns.
These things aren’t equivalent in scope of course, but neither of them moves us any closer to appropriate stewardship of creation. And both are rooted in treating Creation as though it is just another part of our absurd political game, with its entrenched opposition, with all our blaming of the other while turning a blind-eye to our own role in anything.
Creation is not a pawn in our political game. Some responses will require political action, but we begin not with a political question, but a spiritual one: how do we humans sing a song of which we are only a part? The answer to such questions almost always begins with spending time, with listening and learning, and letting appreciation grow. Letting delight grow. Learning what is necessary for life of all kinds to thrive, and seeing how things work together. Letting the desire to nurture that life grow within us. It will blossom as we recognize God within all people and within everything around us. And it will lead us to a desire to honor that image, and the responsibility to help it thrive.
We do it in small ways. We do it in large ways. The only option we are not permitted is to refuse to do it, through denial or inaction. Because if we refuse to sing, then the song falters, and God is not glorified.
So let us sing. All you angels and heavenly hosts; sun, moon, and stars; earth and the deeps; sea monsters and wild beasts; creeping things and winged birds; fire and hail, mountains and hills; and us, rulers and princes, young and old, all together. We live, together. We thrive, together. And this is our praise of God. Let us not abandon the song. May it be so, Amen.
 Working Preacher.org “Sermon Brainwave” podcast #663, posted May 11, 2019